Play Up, play up!

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Wilfred Owen wrote Dulce et Decorum Est during a recovery period in a hospital in Scotland.  He was laid up with physical injuries that could be treated. His psychological ones fevered on. I was explaining this to a class of Year 8s who I was covering a lesson for. The lack of solemnity and near reverence for the text was murmuring in the background and frustration was simmering, ever so lightly, as a few more tangible murmurs were rising from the back row.

I laughed to myself. One or two of the kids noticed my aberrant behaviour.nudged each other and shared an inquisitorial eyebrow.

“What are you laughing at, sir?”

“Just something.”

“Tell us.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Tell us, sir,” came a chorus from the murmurers.

 

My white flag of okay went up and I relented.

I was thinking about how sad it was for Owen and other soldiers like him, who escaped the battlefield for a period of time, to recover from their physical injuries only for them to be forced to return to the front. All that release from the nightmares, merely postponed. It’s like that with teachers who come back from anxiety or stress.

Since David Cameron returned the Conservatives to power with his spectacular vision of  a Big Society, the general feeling of us all being in it together was bolstered with another that sought to blame sections of society for its downfall. Teachers, so long praised for their efforts in bringing about a new educational revolution, were now cast as the enemy within. We had been taking the nation’s coin and not paying it back in kind. The terrible trilogy of Tony Blair’s Education, Education, Education, now formed the trio of lashes that Michael Gove used to punish a profession that was underperforming whilst being overpaid. When the rest of the nation was at the doors of the workhouse, teachers were flaunting their newly found lefty lottery wins on foreign holidays and flashy cars. The positive perception of these professional educators was about to undergo a very negative makeover.

During the course of their first years in office, regardless of the limiting factors of the Lib Dems, the Tory hierarchy loosed their rabid terrier on the teachers. The right wing press joined in with a number of articles designed to undermine the public’s belief in the educational system. In truth, it’s easy to loathe a teacher so it took very little to bring about the change. It started to be noticeable at parents’ evenings with a number of them turning up armed with accusations about the school’s inability to educate their offspring.

The subsequent years mobilised the public’s ability to hold schools and teachers to account. You see, we had made promises and the parents had not.

The age of marketing had already settled upon educational institutes, turning both primaries and secondaries into slick looking brochures filled with smiling children and their glowing instructors. Teaching and learning became learning and teaching. All-weather posters announced that they were officially outstanding. Competition was encouraged between schools in the same town with the better ones getting the pick of the crop at recruitment time. Pen manufacturers were introduced into a golden age of expansion with the introduction of  multi-coloured pens to encourage deep learning through deeper marking.  Inspirational speakers were hired to tell jokes, inspire and then get rich quick. The global economy determined that local aspirations were raised to match those of South Korea, Japan and Vulcan. Monitoring, managing and bullying became the norm in relentless drive for improvement. And, guess what? Ofsted was now the friend of the workingman but not teachers; they had too many holidays to consider themselves workers.

The battle lines had been drawn and the first salvoes fired. Gove’s blitzkrieg had begun in earnest and the war was with us.

 

I don’t like trench warfare. It’s the mud with the rats and the fleas and the Tories; the last ones replaced the Hun. Now, if that was all that was to be faced in the line of fire it would have been difficult but not impossible. Being outnumbered or at an insurmountable disadvantage has a liberating effect. What’s not to lose if you have already lost before you start? Once more unto the breach and clog up the hole with your teacherly dead. Once more to laugh in the face of defeat, and once more to be defeated; honourably.  The problem was not the enemy or the vermin that you encountered, but the growing numbers of fifth columnists.

 

I remember the miner’s strike in the eighties as a sound lesson in civil war. I had recently left the Metropolitan Police as a result of their rather fascistic approach to race relations. Just in time, I remember thinking. Thatcher, our last truly great leader (hope the irony sticks) who had already barged into a boy ship of sea cadets and sent them scuttling to a watery grave, was now setting her sights on the enemy within. Coal was in its last days but the Iron Lady wanted to apply euthanasia. Fortunately, the good people of Britain had not been bathed in the waters of Mammon and many of them decided to make a stand. Being from a coal community, I felt an ideological draw to their cause which was bound to be a tragic one, one that could be fought for with pride and honour. Incidentally, the closest I came to combat was a refusal to shake the hand of Michael Heseltine on the BBC; my moment of rebellious fame was left on the floor of the cutting room. Nevertheless, the strike did teach me one invaluable lesson and that was that there were traitors and turncoats among us.

If the miners’ strike made immediately evident the scale of class, community and work disloyalty, the long-drawn out conflict between teachers and Gove revealed itself more insidiously.

Teachers had become a new class of university-educated professionals who enjoyed a major increase in salary and status under the previous Labour government. Their fortunes could be measured by the houses they bought, the cars they drove and the sustainability of tans that were not purchased at the leisure-centre and foreign breaks. Teachers had become big-time consumers and that overt consumption needed to be financed.

 

Now the foundations had already been well established before Labour left office. Fast-tracking and academy establishing had seen several stars rise to the fore. Super Heads were introduced into the educational landscape along with motivational speakers, alchemistic academics, dubious consultants and a school of ravenous bottom-feeders who were prepared to devour anything in their path on their journeys towards the very surface. There are many teachers who recognise the accidental achievers. These are those who find it so difficult to survive in the classroom that they have come pre-prepared with an exit and upwards plan.

 

It works like this: Spend up to eighteen months in the classroom, gain a promotion to head of department, spend up to a year there stiffing out and then ejecting merely satisfactory colleagues, gain another promotion into senior leadership, appear to be ultra efficient within something like SEN, safeguarding or data and then become a Head of your very own school. From there it is a case of reapplying the formula by recruiting other wankers like yourself who are fully prepared to sell their grandmothers down the river for an extra leadership point. The really excellent wankers move on into demi-god status with kingdoms of academies, non-qualified educators and a plethora of politicians to perpetuate their greatness. Without any other driving force behind people like this (beyond the fake altruism) and their affiliation to the ethics of education, it was a simple step to collaborate with the supposed oppressors.

 

They are among us, but we are too nice, too civilised or too scared to expose them for what they are. Grandmother, what big teeth you have!

 

What remains of Michael Gove must be laughing all the way to his discreet sessions of strict discipline.

 

“It was them all along. They did it for me. They did not need much but they were voracious for advancement. It was the teachers what did it. And they are still doing it.”

 

I was in an assembly this morning in which one of this new breed was extolling the virtues of believing the dream. With the aid of a Powerpoint, video footage of the Olympics and X Factor (Susan Boyle) she was able to convince herself that any dream could be achieved. Look at Susan Boyle; the kids were, and I felt uncomfortable. The assembly ended with the senior member of staff reeling off a succession of triples, thrusting her fist in the air like Henry V and playing some inspirational get down with the kids song as we all left the hall. It is this quality fertiliser that is securing the future for the next generations. I wanted to whoop and clap all my way back to the classroom. That was until I realised that a rather disturbing group of Year 7s would be waiting to be educated.

 

I heard the sounds of machinegun fire as I climbed the stairs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too Far Out

timeline-of-ernest-hemingway      Ernest Hemingway

 

It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was. And what beat you, he thought.

‘Nothing,’ he said aloud. ‘I went out too far.’

Ernest Hemingway   The Old Man and The Sea

 

I first read this book when I was about fourteen years of age. Not a prodigious reader, something that came out of the fact that I was a struggling reader – a dyslexic. With school then becoming a place of false hope, a victim of insidious bullying that threatened to break my young resolve, I visited the school library like one who would visit Lourdes. Somehow, just the act of pilgrimage could do it. I browsed the bookshelves in the hope of divine intervention. My normal choice was a history or geography book that gave me facts, packages of knowledge, small chunks that could be digested easily. I was not good at reading novels that would demand days of attention or maybe even weeks. I was a poor reader who struggled over every word. In class, there was no escaping when the teacher asked you to read. My failing attempts were met with snorts and ridicule. The scars that were left from those days still itch today as I stand in front of classes of students who see books and reading as irrelevant antiquities in an age that sees the magic of the internet as just something that we have in our everyday lives. I am sure that I would have been one of these if it had not been for the pressure from my dad, Romeo and Juliet and The Old Man and The Sea.

 

I started reading Hemingway’s novella today and was struck by how fresh it all was. Time sits inside books waiting for somebody special to release it. I was back to the tragedy of man, the eternal effort to fight forces and events that cannot be controlled. Sometimes, shit happens. If you are unlucky, like Santiago, shit happens more frequently. Now, I don’t know where I stand on the fate thing but it may as well serve as a metaphor for the whole explanation of happening. If it ever happened, it was fate. If a tile fell off a roof and cleaved through my head, it was fate. If a tree blew down on top of my car with me inside it, rendering me a cripple, it was fate. If I then went on to tackle my unfortunate brush with fate by writing numerous novels that thousands of people read, it was fate again. Lottery wins, cancer, getting married…yup, you’ve got it, fate. I ought to alliterate fate with an expletive because it’s so fucking greedy and so, so much in need of recognition.

 

Fate writes stories before they are told. It’s sitting here beside me now, nudging me with a wink of the eye that tells me that it told me so. Yes, and when I began reading The Old Man and The Sea, I thought of fate.

 

I was back at school. Break-time was happening and many of the students were outside playing on the mud of the grass or tarmac of the playground. My breaks would normally involve football, the medieval version in which sixty people would brawl for the ball. We had been in secondary school for a few years and had resisted the government’s attempts to make a more equal society. Whatever we had learnt at junior school was consigned to the distant and unrelated past. High school was more of a jungle. There were pecking orders and social strata. There was also the food-chain, one that was not dissimilar to those found in Origin of the Species. H.G. Wells would have recognised it from his book, The Time Machine. Put simply, the school was divided into two parts: puffs and scruffs. The ones who had passed their 11 Plus were the puffs whereas the others, the normal ones, were the scruffs. We were taught in different streams, played out in certain groups, formed friendships and relationships based on our perceived academic abilities. All in all, we were disentangled from other kids who we had thus far grown up with and, to this day, that divide has never been bridged.

 

This separation of the young was obviously not new; it had been going on for decades through the grammar, technical and secondary system. Perhaps that system was better in many ways as it physically divided groups of kids rather that psychologically separating. In fact, there is something quite insidious about the nature of that exercise as it mirrored the way in which society operated on a macro-scale. We move in our own groups with others whom we perceive to be our equals or with those who share a common outlook. Many of the towns and cities that I have lived in have areas that are demarcated to particular groups. I was a council estate boy in a mining village that also housed those who were wealthy and those who were extremely wealthy. Within the village, there were three council estates, each with its own characteristics. In fact, within each of the estates existed enclaves of upper, middle and lower. My estate was middling with a smattering of upper. The estate next to ours was tougher and it was rumoured that some of them even thought that the bath was a place for storing coal. The third estate, which was separated from the other two, was perhaps upper, if only in the minds of those who lived there.

Junior schools helped us to not see the divisions but secondary made them all too obvious. My friendship group, one that I still have access to today, revolves around two major estates and fails to include anyone from the third. Perhaps this proves nothing other than the essential non-gregarious nature of mankind or how we very much gravitate towards people who reflect ourselves.

 

None of this goes any way towards explaining why I should be here, tapping out the path back to understanding. Whatever social experiments or sociological norms were followed back then surely has little to do with the person I am now. Age is developmental, it moves in stages. When I was a child I acted and thought as a child. Now, I have pushed aside childish things and think like a man. No! There is something in my personal history that has blighted me. My burn-out was forever coming. It’s happened before and I am desperately afraid that it will happen again and again. My quest is to discover its source and then to quench it.

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But when I find the source, what will I do then?

 

 

 

 

 

Onwards to Outstanding

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The Volta Dam

 

Another school and another cliché. It’s enough to make you turn around and walk away.

 

Pride. Respect. Aspire.

 

Three more reasons to turn a teacher’s stomach. When, just when, did schools stop being accidental places of learning and become artificially enhanced affirmations.

 

I became a teacher because I wanted to make a difference.

Ooops! Another corny cliché.

 

Back then, it wasn’t such an overused and underweight thing to say. I did want to make a difference, for the students I taught and for myself. There is not a day goes by without me thinking about the wasted opportunities that my own school afforded me. Indeed, it was because of my own abysmal failure as a young man that I found the need to return to the classroom in order to put things right; I also liked the holidays.

 

Growing up in the chill of the neo-arctic of the sixties and the flared years of the seventies exposed me to much more than frostbite. Infant schools and junior schools became oceans of optimism for those who were done with world wars, post-war rationing and elitist governments. By the end of the sixties even the West Riding, with its shoddy and mungo, was not able to hold back the twentieth century. While men were landing on the moon, we had our first taste of empire with a teacher arriving from Ghana to tell us about cocoa and the Volta Dam Project. A black man in a village where the only previous black faces belonged to colliers coming up from the pits. It was a closed community with more than its fare share of violence, domestic and communal.

 

Thornhill, as the village is called, was at the top of a hill overlooking Dewsbury. My village had the pits whereas Dewsbury had the mills and factories. We, the alumni of the parish, were destined for either one or the other. Everything we did was done with the implicit acceptance that we would probably grow up, find work, marry, have kids, have grand kids, retire and die there. So why oh why did they bring a black man all the way from Africa to teach us?

 

I don’t believe that this guy ever had a lesson plan. He never had to raise his voice. And was never the brunt of any blunt xenophobia. He was a teacher and we listened to him. And once his accent fitted into our ears, we learnt. We probably learnt about lots of things but uppermost in my memory was the work we did on cocoa production, chocolate making and the Volta Dam.  After over four and a half decades, that’s not a bad return for those few hours of instruction. How long do the children who we teach today retain their knowledge? How many lessons can survive the stride of time and be as effective as that?

 

The outcome of those lessons was far more enriching than mere facts and information. From my position of teaching in the first part of the twenty-first century, I look back to that teacher who had the courage to travel to such an industrial backwater, into a climate that could have not have been any more hostile, and a world that had still not fully appreciated that darkness was not a curse.

 

I think I owe a debt of gratitude to my junior school teachers who managed to teach me the attributes of respect and kindness. Most of our lessons were suffused with a Christian-Socialism. They were missionaries posted to the deepest reaches of West Yorkshire, their aim was to bring light. So, there was I at the start of this period of enlightenment. Although not all teachers were predisposed to the task of illumination (some were still cosily trapped in the remnants of the Victorian era that had stretched out until it was rudely interrupted by Hitler and the Second World War). Many of the new ones, however, were new to the role. Regardless of age, they had bought into the prevailing zeitgeist and were intent upon shaking up their social order.

 

With the Cold War whispering around us and the explosion of sirens in the middle of the night, many of us were aware that it was probably now or never. Any moment, we were sure, could bring about the end. I suppose that is why people were less shackled by tradition; when the bombs landed that would be that and the old world would be stuffed. The upshot was that we were taught to think, to question and to disagree. This was not instruction to a class of mutes but a long running debate or quest. These people, who were teaching us, also needed to find the answers.

 

Apart from the war and the proliferation of domestic violence, there were few things which bothered our world of play. School stretched before us like a never-ending quest. Mornings would see us shunted from sleep. Beds were covered with coats and old clothes to keep the cold out. Windows were playgrounds of ice whilst outside smog would gather in ambush. It was always cold in those days. It was cold and wet. My shoes were open soles and my feet became sodden on wet day walks to school and back. I had one pair of shoes for school and the same ones for playing out. When the holes became too big, I would stuff them with cardboard and then wrap my feet in plastic bags. Crunching and squelching were my daily companions. The truth of it was that almost every one that I knew was poor.  This made it easier as we knew no better. In those days, the classes did not meet very often unless it was in the line of work.

 

My mother was a cleaner for a mill owner’s wife and during holidays we were allowed to accompany her, as long as we stayed in the garden. The posh woman, Mrs Robinson, was probably kind. She went into the garage and brought out various things that her children had used and played with. There was a cricket bat and tennis balls, a badminton set and,, my favourite, a pair of rucksacks. I thought the rucksacks were really parachutes and ran around and around as if I was circling a number of enemy Messerschmitt. Mostly I would dacka dacka dak them out of the sky but on one or two occasions, they would get the better of me and I would have to bail out using my new parachute. It took me ages to reach the ground, floating on the thermals whilst attempting to avoid the underhand volleys of machine gun fire that came from a stray German pilot; without any trace of sportsmanship. It would always end in me hitting the lawn and rolling over theatrically before raising a fist of defiance towards the skies above.

 

It must have rained in that garden that stretched on forever but my memory was always of sunshine. It was a quintessential part of England with an exquisite lawn and edging, an exuberance of flowers and an excellence of fruit trees. I longed for a tree that could bare apples or pears. This was the essence of being rich, a reward for being born into the right strata, a constant reminder of one’s rightful privilege. So, it was not surprising that the grandchildren were as different to me and my sister as our African teacher was to us.

 

We were from different worlds and every pore of our beings screamed it. They had just come back from weeks in France. They were tanned in a golden way that I had never seen before and they spoke with such effortless ease of authority that I am amazed that they didn’t throw sticks for us to fetch. Nevertheless, they were not as condescending as they could have been. Both my sister and I recognised their status and clammed up a little when our rough accents bumped against their public-school enunciation.  It never occurred to me that something was wrong. While Mum worked as a cleaner in a house that was akin to a royal residence, we played in the garden like little animals that only needed exercise.

 

Mum accepted her role and even granted the privileged excuses for their towering superiority. “She is a lovely lady,” and “She speaks so proper, like the Queen.”  I have met many of my mum’s generation and class that allow their betters to remain unquestioned. There have been many who regard their granted advantages as something that is right, even ordained. For a number of decades, I identified with being working class. I was proud of my membership of this strangely elite club which gave me a reason to fight the system whilst also giving me an excuse for not beating it. I was destined to become a failure because of the fact that I had accepted that what the other classes represented was not worth having.

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I got by as a non-participant, always making enough to keep afloat, always enjoying the clean hands of not really trying to fight it. It wasn’t until teaching came calling that I took up arms.

Unsaid

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7.

 

“It’s okay to cry.”

 

I was back in the office of my counsellor.

 

Could it be just me or is crying in front of a stranger, a strange female, something that most middle-aged men would find acceptable? I did everything that I could do to keep a stiff upper lip. I braced myself. I took deep breaths.

 

“If you want to cry, it is all part of the process.”

 

I was part of a process now. I was in the process of working through a personal trauma that had brought me to a crashing standstill and…now I was being asked to cry as some type of cleansing therapy. The problem was that I thought that crying would be just a little distraction. It would be like having leaches placed on an exposed stretch of skin with the intention of them sucking out the corruption. Tears would not do it. I hadn’t even cried at my father’s funeral or at any time since he’d died.

 

One of my favourite films is Field of Dreams. This, as most of you will know, is a male weepy. There has never been a time when I have watched it that I have been able to control the seepage of emotion.

 

“Dad, do you want to play catch?”

 

I can feel the artesian well now, but there is no music, no camera angles and no conclusion to our shared journey. You see, the film was a process in itself. As was my father’s death. The question is, why has the death of my dad come back to haunt me after over five years?

 

A huge lump of granite lay in my stomach. I was being asked to regurgitate the past. That block of forever granite was there, sentinel, obstructive. My dad was listening to what I was about to say. I heard him sitting in the corner, a shuffle of shoes and a cursory clearing of the throat. It is alright, I wanted to tell him, it is alright, I’m not going to break down. But the tide of emotion was returning from the morning I saw him cold and grey in the sterility of the hospital’s chapel of rest.

 

“You go, Matthew,” my mother had said. “I can’t look at him.”

 

She had sat all day and through the night. She had talked and silently sobbed as he waded into the shallows. She held his right hand, closer in this moment than in many a year they had shared before. She was holding his hand when the nurse arrived to check. It wasn’t alright. My mum, trapped in hope, had not noticed the changes on the monitor. She held his hand and squeezed as if to rub some more time into him. His chest rose and fell, rose and fell, and he was, for all intents alive. The nurse moved off quickly and returned with the doctor. By this point, my mother would have been becoming aware. But her husband was breathing. Watch the rising and falling of his chest. He always slept deeply.

 

“Mrs Evans, I’m sorry but your husband is dead.”

 

What did they know? He is still breathing. Look at his chest. Look at his chest.

 

“That’s the respirator, Mrs Evans. It is the respirator that is doing that.”

 

No, it wasn’t. He was still alive. He was sleeping. Come on Brian, wake up.

 

I have never seen her so empty as I saw her that morning. I was the dutiful son taking the lead. When I saw him in the chapel of rest, I understood that his passing had left a vacuum in all our lives.

 

“Dad,” I murmured. “Dad, what are you doing scaring us all like this?”

 

He didn’t answer. His face was sunken and pale. Death had been with him for some ten hours.

 

I wanted to be Jesus. Come forth Brian. The stubborn bugger wouldn’t move; he was in a mood with me.

 

“I’m sorry,” I whispered so that my mum wouldn’t hear me.

 

I wasn’t really sorry about what I was apologising for but I was sorry that he managed to die before we had properly worked it through. You see, we had argued some months prior to this and had only recently, grudgingly shrugged of the disagreement. And disagreement it certainly was. As our arguments went, this was top by a long score. Every single family factor was brought to the table and every last piece was served in ballistic fashion.

 

Charlotte had started sitting forward in her chair as I spoke. She was avidly listening but her stance had changed from counsellor to interested participant. She had become the audience and would occasionally stop me to ask for explanation of events and back-stories. Back-stories, I had in abundance.

 

My dad was born the second youngest of a family of twelve. He had ten brothers and one older sister. By the time he was ten, his father had left the family in search of work. He never returned so it fell upon his mother to bring up the sons. The daughter had married and moved into her own home. At the age of twelve, my dad had to go around to his elder sister’s house with a note. The note informed her that their mother had died suddenly. Norah, the sister, was obliged to take the other siblings under her wing. I gather that she did so with a stoic quality that was common of that age. The war had just ended so there were a lot of people in similar circumstances. War had taken many fathers in the field of

combat whilst enemy bombings had taken a significant number of those who remained at home. A brave new world was at hand and the ones who faced it did so with uncertainty and trepidation. Nevertheless, the worst was over.

 

I have stories that he told me about his childhood but there aren’t many. I know that a bomb once landed in their back garden after a raid. They discovered it the next morning and put ashes over the offending intruder until the right authority came to deal with it. Ashes? Odd choice.

 

So, the years that followed were growing up years. He was a bit of a dare-devil and a tearaway. He played rugby to a decent standard. He told me of a brief relationship he had with a married woman and about the ensuing fight he had with her husband. In fact, he had two fights: one with the husband and the husband’s mate in which my dad was beaten up and one when he hunted down his cowardly assailant some months later and gave him a return beating. I was proud of that part of him. After the war, he went to technical college even though he had passed his 11 plus. He was bright, gregarious and sharp as a knife.

 

“You sound as if you’re proud of your father.”

 

“I suppose it does. But…” I had to stop and think. “But actually, I often think that I never knew him.”

 

I’ve noticed with myself in the last couple of years that I have drawn further within the older I get. My wife has noticed it as well. She has told me that I never talk about anything.

 

“Why do you think that is?”

 

“What’s the point? It doesn’t solve anything. Nobody notices. It’s like the stuff that people say after a sudden death, “Make the most of every second because you never know when it’s your turn”. The thing is, that it is always going to come around, your time. Somebody has just died since I’ve written that and you’ve read this . Seize the day! What I want to know is how we are supposed to seize it. What are we supposed to be seizing?”

 

“Do you think they may mean that we should do what we really feel that we should do?”

 

Charlotte was coaxing out more explanation.

 

“I think it’s just something that people say as a comforter. When somebody has died, we have a desire that it must make sense. We aren’t just born to die. We are supposed to be creatures that have a higher purpose. It’s supposed to have meaning. What if it was all just nonsense? What if every single thing that we do, every series of events that snake around us, everybody we have ever loved or even hated for that matter, are just accidents of chance. If that is the case, then we are all lost without even knowing it.”

 

“What do you think?”

 

She asked me this question, probably aware that I didn’t have an answer. My mind was tumbling with newly sprouted hypotheses but there was nothing firm about it. Mental masturbation is what it was, creating questions and running down pathways, not to reach a climax of understanding but just to play around with the thoughts. The truth of it was that I liked this after-accident evaluation. Part of me was dead and the rest was floating above the scene trying to make sense of it. Nevertheless, just the act of trying to make sense made sense.

 

To Be Is To Do.

To Do Is To Be.

Do Be Do Be Do.

Cognito ergo sum.

 

“I think that I don’t know. I think that I will have to think about it some more; and then some. I think that I should sometimes stop thinking and just do, be do be do. My dad never had a problem with discarding deep thinking. He once criticised me for thinking too much about the past. He told me to, “Just get on with today.” I told him that I found that impossible and that I found the past interesting. He said something about dead people and nonsense. I just nodded and turned away. I wonder if he would have ever imagined that I would be thinking about him now all these years after he died?”

 

Don’t think. Don’t prevaricate. Act.

 

Act 1 Scene 1

 

A middle-aged man in a room with a woman. They are sitting facing each other. He has his right leg crossed over the other and is pushed back into his chair. She is sitting slightly forward. She holds a notepad and a pen but she doesn’t write. The man is talking. The woman is listening. Her eyes watch him whilst he looks beyond her into some vague setting.

 

“Where are you now?” She asks.

 

I’m back in school. I’ve just played football for the school team and I scored the winning goals.”

 

“Why do you look so unhappy?”

 

“My dad never came to see me. I played football lots and scored lots of goals. I was a decent player. Not once, not ever, did my dad come to see me play. How does a father do that to his child? What was he thinking? The thing is that I learnt from him. I learnt how not to be a father. My wife taught me how to be a proper one, a dad and a husband.”

 

“How does that make you feel?”

 

“I suppose that it should make me feel angry. I should be full to the brim with resentment. All those years of playing and not once was he there to see me. That was the norm for working class men. Too busy at the club with their mates playing at being lads who never grew up. Never, never. And, do you know what? I do feel something about that which is not anger at him, but guilt for my own self. It was me who was the cause of him not being there. I was a let-down and there was nothing I could do to change his mind. He didn’t come to see me because he wasn’t proud of me so I spent the rest of my life trying to make him proud. That was after I had got over the fact that I once thought that I hated him.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Rome…There Be Dragons

 

And so it came to pass that God made the earth in six days and that on the seventh he sat down and rested. The next day, he did his first supply-teacher gig.

Oh, for thou art last among men.

The_Scream

Becoming a supply teacher is the most daunting of educational adventures one could take. For me it is not just about stripping off the apparel of brief authority, but of cleansing myself in the fires of perdition. Being a supply, or what they call substitute teacher, is most definitely a journey to the darker side of education.

Where other triples reach for the sky, most supply just wish to survive.

Arrive. Teach. Survive.

I once worked in a school that was in the heart of Manchester. I got my measure of it when the first after school CPD concerned itself with drugs and gangs. The key question to the staff was, ‘Can you identify gang colours?’  Apparently, the school had once been virtually run by gangs and anybody standing in their way was dealt with severely. Supply teachers must have been like slaves imported into Rome to serve as mini- appetisers for the main event in the circus. One tale told of a hapless supply who had turned up for a day’s paid torture only to realise that he had been there before. He sat in his car shaking before doing a rapid three-point turn and making a hasty retreat. If there are any of you out there who have ever done supply in dodgy schools, I am sure you will understand this poor man’s plight.

 

Nobody loves a supply. Head Teachers consider them a necessary evil. Heads of departments tend to think likewise. Young teachers look upon them as some sort of lower life form; beings that have fallen from the state of grace that is full-time teaching. Kids, well they just see them as target practice.

Now that I find myself doing this, I feel as if I have become one of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. I am King Lear who has thrown away his kingdom in a fit of deranged self-awareness. I shall not soil my hands with this again; something that I have promised myself on more than one occasion. So, here I am soiling myself once again.

To be truthful, it’s not that bad. Once you get over the headache that your own voice has given you through pleading, insisting, demanding or resigning oneself to all sorts of unacceptable behaviours and attitudes, it sort of flows over you. My name seems to have disappeared along with my standing. I have become the supply, an unwanted pseudonym, but one that people are happy to grant me. To some children I am Mr Smith and, even when I reject this, they continue to refer to me as Mr Smith.

“You teach maths, don’t you?”

“No.”

“Yes, you do. You taught me maths last year.”

“No, I didn’t. It is my first time in this school and I’m an English teacher.”

“Don’t believe him, he’s a maths teacher. He taught my brother as well.”

 

There are some that I can no longer teach. Take the Year 10 group I covered for recently. They were class-wise and able to turn a dismal situation into an extended wound licking operation.

As a parent and a teacher, I am aware of the over-reliance of schools on supply teachers. They are fillers for absences that were unwanted. Sometimes they are in for a day or two, but at other times, when the permanent teacher is finally worn down by a combination of collective germs and professional stress, the medium-term supply comes in to fill the gap. Mainly though, with the lack of reliably experienced substitutes, classes have to be manned with a succession of unwanted visitors who land, pay cursory attention to the work left, inhabit a kingdom of mayhem in which the young dictate and then finally flee the nest. Oh, the poor students?

This is another lie. Okay, so some of them deserve better. There are hardworking, respectful kids who have never put a foot wrong and the system that has been geared up to help them aspire has, by design, brought about a temporary denouement. If I could truly bleed onto the page, I would. It would be a pinprick however. A cover-led classroom can be any number of things but in reality, it is something that is constantly being obstructed from becoming a harmonious centre for learning and mutual appreciation. For unsuspecting adults, it becomes a place of darkness in which only dragons roam.

The Year 10 class that I took had dragons. I noticed them as they came into the room, late, put their handbags on the desks, chewed their gum and shared their conversations for all to hear. Even an experienced teacher like me has to gird himself for such a seditious onslaught. I stand at the front bigging up to the audience. I make sure that I am not sitting, leaning or hiding behind anything. Anything between me and them would be seen as a surrender. Deep breath, but not too obvious, and a modulated voice that says that I am not afraid.

Unfortunately, neither are they.

 

Kids can be scary.

Pol Pot knew that and so do many terrorist organisations. They have not yet reached the age of consequences, where their deeds have repercussions; some probably never will. They are pack animals moving in agreed conventions of hierarchy. Permanent teachers are part of the pack even if they don’t know it. They are accepted group members who have a right to grunt and give instructions. Often, the permanent teacher inspires love and respect which allows the group to move onwards. However, as love and respect are fragile concepts, sometimes the trust can be broken. Once broken, they rarely mend themselves properly.

Long-term absence with anything other than cancer will do it. Into the void left behind by such an accepted member, a supply teacher is lured. Kids just love a supply teacher and the older ones can eat more than their own body weight of one in a day.

 

I am not afraid. I am not afraid.

I am not in my right mind.

  • Ask for quiet. Give instructions.
  • Write them on the board.
  • Ask for quiet.
  • Talk through the instructions.
  • Ask for silence.
  • Talk.
  • Stop.
  • Ask for silence.
  • Look brooding.
  • Be silent.
  • Ask for silence.
  • Raise your voice whilst lowering the pitch.
  • Demand silence.
  • Move towards the most ardently indifferent.
  • Ask them what they are doing.
  • Keep your head when they reply that they don’t know because you haven’t told them yet.
  • Look incredulous.
  • Ask for silence.
  • Ask if anyone was listening when you asked for silence the last dozen times.
  • Raise your voice in an attempt to get them to listen.
  • Try not to scream.
  • Try not to kick the door.
  • Try to keep yourself in the room.
  • Attempt to put it all into perspective.
  • Allow your jaw to drop widely open when some inane member of SLT comes into your room.
  • Let your jaw hang loosely as silence descends.
  • Listen to the trite appeasement offered by the SLT member as they tell you that this is usually a very good class.
  • Try not to show your disbelief as some of the gobbier students tell the SLT that they were not told what to do.
  • Enter into a conversation with the SLT about the importance of good behaviour for learning.
  • Fade away in volume as it becomes obvious that the SLT thing is not listening to you as they have already started to pull a funny appeasing kind of face to one of the dragons.
  • Listen to some more of their bullshit ‘come on kids’ speech.
  • Allow the SLT being from another universe to tell you that the class will now be good and attentive.
  • Watch the door as it closes on the darting SLT whatever and imagine how they have formed their opinion of your inability to basically teach such an easy group of wonderful young people.
  • Brace yourself for an immediate increase in volume and belligerence.
  • Face accusations that you haven’t told them what to do.
  • Try to seek out those friendly faces that you thought were there at the beginning of the lesson.
  • Despair on discovering that they too have fallen into conversations with those around them or have buried their faces into the sand of their exercise books.

 

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Sit.

Breathe.

Count the seconds as they pass.

 

Blame it on Hemingway

Unknown

 

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a writer. No, that’s not quite true. The first thing that I wanted to be was a fighter pilot. That was followed by wanting to be an architect. I was a good artist. The next thing I wanted to be was a writer and that is why I ended up joining the Metropolitan Police. I personally blame Ernest Hemingway for that one. At another stage in my life, I blamed Laurie Lee for painting an unsustainable picture of Spain. I have now forgiven both of them. Both of those writers did something worthwhile. Both of them convinced me that I could do likewise. Then I became a teacher.

Outcomes matter. That sounds like some trite ideology from the Department for MisEducation or a veiled threat to all classroom practitioners (don’t you just hate that nonsense verbage?). Outcomes do matter but not in the phony way that data specialists would have us think. Outcomes are about building things for the future. Think about a house that starts off as an idea before it becomes a dream. Think about how that dream becomes a plan and then how that plan gets put into action; first the foundations and then the walls. But things can change along the way; plans do not always foresee everything that lies before them. The good thing about plans is that they can change.

I never wanted to be a teacher, forever.

The vision of me as Mr Chips, although at once appealing, was not what reality would bring. Perhaps something within me wanted to be that avuncular figure who was loved, admired and cherished by generations of children and parents. Dream on! No ancient tweed jacket for me. No chronic chest complaints brought on by the chalk board. No healthy pension and fare-thee-well-handshake. And why? Because I don’t fit!

One of the most important characteristics of a successful educator is the ability to fit. Be there, agree with the most important agreements, shy away from having opinions, yet pretend to have passion. Treat the educational environment as an opportunity to make constant improvements to everything, anything and anyone, as long as anyone does not include oneself.

You see that is the flip side of ‘Growth Mindset’, growth always increases if you cut away at the right time. Today we are getting accustomed to these things called multi-academy-trusts which is really just franchising. Franchises run the world. They rely on a good idea, a few years of successful practise, an ethos or philosophy that sounds good but doesn’t have to be plausible or ever enacted. They need decent marketing that will convince others to buy into the idea rather than attract potential customers. They need followers, drones who can mumble the mantra at a moment’s notice. On top of that, they need people who have growth mindsets!

There is a Frankenstein aspect to growth mindsets. It’s based on the premise that we can continue to improve. Year on year on year on year, we can get better and better. All it takes is hard work and belief. Victor Frankenstein would have loved this in so much as he set about achieving the seemingly unachievable; defeating death itself. So, with all the brilliance and passion that he could muster, combined with all the latest developments in science and technology, he set about bringing to life his creation. Unwanted arms and legs, heads and hearts, brains and brawn were all recycled, reprogrammed and re-imagined in the vision of the new creator.

Outcome? To say the creation was a little messed up would be like saying Hitler was a bit bossy. Okay it worked out, to an extent. Frankenbaby gave a double fingered salute to death, but then came the stinger. Something was not quite right. The plans had not predicted the petulance of the inventor’s pubescent protégé.

So, what do you do when it all goes tits towards heaven?

You blame.

Blame the body parts. Blame the lack of skilled labour. Blame the bloody working conditions. Blame God. But when all else fails blame Carol ‘fucking’ Dweck for coming up with the idea of growth mindset. The problem with blame is that it releases us from our own personal responsibility. We are responsible for what we do until it goes wrong and then we look around for other factors that can take the flak.

Each school becomes the brainchild of its leader.

Their personality is imprinted on the day to day DNA of everything that happens. The senior leadership team, the middle management team, the teachers, the teaching assistants and the support staff are all manifestations of the main man or woman; Leadership at work.

Nobody sets out to fail. Well, some of us do. We are convinced and have convinced ourselves that we cannot not succeed. We fear the stigma of not succeeding. More than anything else, we are petrified of the public panning that we will receive once our failed attempts come to light. And, although many gurus would have us believe that failure is the natural root of success, we know that failure hurts.

Would you want Frankenstein as your family GP? My problem is that I am a failure flunky. There is something missing in my inhibitor technology. There is no fail-safe thermostat or James Bond alarm that warns of “thirty seconds to explosion”. So, I set about my endeavours in the fragile belief that it will all work out fine in the end. That is why I am certainly not a leader. Who on God’s green earth would follow such a fool?

 

The Pied Piper, now there’s a leader. Many followed him to the ends of the earth. A while back, when still a real teacher, I set a year 9 class a Christmas homework. I wrote the opening paragraph of a story and then followed that with the closing paragraph to the same tale. All the students had to do was to join them up with an appropriate narrative. I did the same. What was supposed to be an uplifting story of young boy’s dreams about his dead father and subsequent reconciliation with the death of a loved one turned into something altogether less warm. Indeed, it became a real chiller.

In my warped hands, The Piper entered the tale and spread his misanthropy. The Piper was the manifestation of evil. I researched the legend and started writing. I took it all the way back to Pan, the original piper, and discovered Syrinx, an unfortunate victim. No going back from there so I steamed ahead into the 1960s and a mental institution where lobotomies were the therapy of choice. I jumped from there to an inner-city school which was none too dissimilar to what we now have and then the tale ran away with itself…

Rats, there were plenty of them. A dried-out man, a Leatherman, who was dead from the start. Three brothers, a mother, a dead father. By this time, the festivities had long gone so I brought in a young anti-Christ. Mix that all up with the looming apocalypse and you have it; a veritable smorgasbord of a novel that flopped. I think it reached about a hundred readers. Too many plots, leaden voice and a crap publisher. Nevertheless, it was an outcome.

Anybody who has ever undergone counselling will be aware of the feeling of astonishment they get when someone shines a light on a part of their life which they had almost totally forgotten.

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Madness, institutions and schools…